Renewed fighting breaks out in east DRC

Renewed fighting broke out on Friday between the regular army and renegade troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Nord-Kivu province, a local spokesperson with the United Nations mission in DRC said.

“Clashes have been reported from Katsiru, a village between Mweso and Kitchanga,” almost 70km north of the provincial capital Goma, which lies on the Rwandan border, Monuc spokesperson Claude Cyrille said.

He gave no details, but Kitchanga is one stronghold of ex-general Laurent Nkunda, a dissident officer turned local warlord who claims to be protecting the minority Congolese Tutsi population in the eastern Kivu provinces.

His men are fighting troops of the 15th Brigade of the FARDC (regular army) and on Thursday drove back an attack by the 14th Brigade, further south, which tried to take their strategic position at Mushake, 30km from Goma.

The Mushake sector was quiet on Friday after hostilities ceased, the deputy commander of the 14th Brigade, Lieutenant Colonel John Tshibangu, said, but he had on Thursday said the FARDC was regrouping and determined to take control there.

Since early September, Nkunda’s men, numbered by Monuc at more than 5 000, have battled at least 15 000 FARDC troops in Nord-Kivu in breach of a ceasefire mediated by Monuc.

The fighting led UN organisations in Kinshasa jointly to warn on Friday of a humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

Nkunda on Wednesday proposed a new ceasefire and for the first time made an offer to send 500 of his men for demobilisation and potential integration into the army under a national military-reform programme.

However, Defence Minister Diemu Chikez responded cautiously on Thursday, when he said the government acknowledged the renewed ceasefire request, but told Agence France-Presse the army “has only been responding to Nkunda’s attacks”.

“He announces an end to the truce on Monday, then on Wednesday evening, he wants a ceasefire. We take note, but we’re waiting to see how this works out on the ground,” Chikez added.

Monuc, the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, has deployed 4 500 of its 17 500 troops to Nord-Kivu, but they are unable to halt the fighting and assert authority in tropical forests, volcanic highland terrain and along more than 200km of border with Rwanda.

Since January, Nkunda has recruited hundreds of demobilised Rwandan troops and some of his men wear Rwandan army uniforms and are equipped with up-to-date communications equipment, according to Monuc and journalists who have dealt with them.

One FARDC officer has anonymously claimed that overnight on October 6, two Rwandan army battalions drove up to the border in Virunga National Park north of Goma, “then crossed it on foot towards Tonga”, but Nkunda has categorically denied allegations he has direct Rwandan military support.

“Rwanda is absolutely not engaged in this affair,” Nkunda said, while a regional expert said there was no proof apart from troops no longer in Rwanda’s army, and if Nkunda was lying, it would mean the two nations were effectively at war.

A Rwandan army spokesperson in Kigali on Friday also categorically denied any military presence in DRC.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Friday that the past month of clashes “have drastically reduced access between Goma, Masisi and Rutshury territories, making it virtually impossible for humanitarians to access affected populations and bring assistance”.

The UN World Food Programme has cancelled food relief deliveries for 18 800 people in need, while overall the number of displaced villagers is estimated at 370 000, notably in Nkunda’s Masisi fief and Rutshuru further north.

Nkunda began his military career in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) when it was a rebel force that halted the 1994 genocide of 800 000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus within Rwanda, and he has kept his ties with the movement that now runs the neighbouring country.

Since a 1998 to 2003 rebel war in the DRC, when Rwanda was among more than half a dozen nations to send troops to fight on rival sides, Kinshasa has embarked on army reforms and wants to incorporate all Congolese fighters.

But Nkunda presents himself as a rampart against armed Rwandan Hutus who fled into the DRC after the genocide. Regional observers and diplomats say the Nkunda problem cannot be solved while those Hutus are present.—AFP

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